Where’s Your Mustache?

An assignment. An idea. A pop culture phenomenon.

Milk Mustache Polaroids

By Bernie Hogya

A creative team at an advertising agency consists of two roles: an art director and a copywriter. When I was assigned to work on the milk campaign, my copywriter partner was Jennifer Gold Mantz. Together, we had tackled on a number of big assignments at Bozell, the ad agency we worked for. But none was bigger—or more important—than this one.

Jay Schulberg, the Chief Creative Officer at the agency gave us the assignment: create an educational campaign promoting the nutritional benefits of milk. In the brief (and I kid you not) was a copy of the USDA Food Pyramid.

An idea can turn to dust or magic, depending on the talent that rubs against it.

Bill Bernbach, Doyle Dane Bernbach

One of the insights we had was that even though most people knew (or were told) that milk was good for them, they really didn't know why. So, we were given some surprising nuggets of information that our client thought would be persuasive:

  • Milk has 9 essential nutrients.
  • Lowfat milk has the same nutrients as whole milk.
  • The calcium in milk helps prevent osteoporosis.

Armed with that information, it was our job to come up a clever way of selling the product. We spent several days kicking around ideas, when Jennifer recalled something from her childhood. “I remember when we used to have breakfast and my brother would get this milk mustache. Maybe we could do something with that?”

We first tried putting milk mustaches on regular people. That worked fine, but lacked the feeling of a big idea. I suggested celebrities, and when we put milk mustaches on them, everything clicked.

I was told that in order to get celebrities to agree to be featured in the campaign we’d be forced to use stock photos of the stars. The milk campaign only paid a small fee to each personality and the feeling was that none of them would take the time to sit for a photoshoot under that arrangement. But I had my heart set on original portraits. And the best portrait photographer at that time was Annie Leibovitz.

She was the most celebrated photographer in the world, so my hopes were not high that she would be interested—let alone accept—the assignment. I asked to check with her and let her turn me down so I could have peace of mind about begrudgingly using stock photography. We quickly heard back from her studio, and to my surprise was told, “Annie not only wants to do this project, but she wants to make sure nobody else does.”

Getting Annie Leibovitz to photograph the portraits was one of the key ingredients of the campaign's success. The target audience for the first year of the effort was women. The odds of getting some of the most glamorous women in the world to go through several hours of hair and makeup and then have milk splashed onto their upper lip were not good. But having Annie behind the camera gave the women the confidence to believe it would look good. And it did.

I had a feeling that the campaign would be big, but never could have guessed just how big. Within a week or so of the campaign’s launch in January 1995, our Milk Mustache campaign was on everyone's lips. There were news articles and television coverage. It made its way into late night talk show host's monologues and milk mustache parodies were seemingly everywhere. Most importantly, it sold milk. And became a part of pop culture.

Now, to commemorate the Milk Mustache Campaign’s 25th Anniversary, I’ve pulled together high-resolution scans of every ad and arranged them in chronological order for the first time ever.

So, pour a tall one (milk, of course) and look for your favorites—or maybe find some new ones. And check back regularly, as I will be sharing more behind-the-scenes stories and never-before seen outtakes from the photoshoots.